Travis County commissioners are eyeing a second salary increase for correction officers as the department is down about a third of its staff with 263 vacancies, according to the county.

Since March 2022, the corrections department has seen a 129% increase in vacancies, according to county documents. The county made several moves to increase staffing last year, including hiring a marketing and recruiting team, approving an overtime incentive program, and adopting a minimum wage hike from $15 to $20 an hour that took effect in October.

The next pay increase is still undecided; county staff will return to the Commissioners Court in 30 days to discuss the financial options.

The problem: The overtime incentive program—which gives employees a $500 bonus when they work an additional 24 hours in a four-week month or 30 extra hours in a five-week month—cost the county about $18 million in 2022.

Commissioners said while the incentive program was effective in getting employees to work more hours, it did not help the sheriff’s office meet its staffing goals. Court members pointed to low wages and stressful work conditions as reasons why the department may be struggling.

“One thing that concerns me is that this is a difficult job, and it is a stressful job,” Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion said. “What are we doing to make sure we are paying attention to mental health issues?”

Kristen Dark, senior public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's Office, said while the numbers show a steep vacancy rate, the county is in the middle of a hiring process.

“Within the next 30 days, we’ll onboard another eight new corrections officers, and 22 corrections officer candidates are currently going through their background investigation,” Dark said, adding the county’s last job posting for dispatchers resulted in 50 applicants.

The solution: Raising correction officer salaries would be a significant expense to the county and likely be the driver behind next year’s budget, Travis County Budget Director Travis Gatlin said; however, paying a fully staffed department 40 hours a week would still be more cost effective than the price tag of overtime hours.

Commissioner Ann Howard added more staff working less hours generally gives jail inmates better care and creates more balance for employees.

Gatlin said he is wary of waiting to adopt a salary bump until the start of the next fiscal year, as the jail population tends to get higher in the summer and Travis County could lose employees to nearby counties.

Travis County Sheriff's Office employees receive a $50,000 starting salary, which is slightly behind employees in Williamson and Hays counties despite the lower cost of living in those areas.

“I don’t want to wait six months because I’m concerned people are going to see the [higher salary] in Williamson County and go there, and the 263 [vacancies] will be in the 300s, and we’re just going to get too far behind,” Gatlin said.